Posted by: Jeanie F | January 24, 2012

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson could not have picked a more precipitous time to release his new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. The December death of North Korea’s despotic leader, Kim Jong Il, immediately preceded the book’s January release, just as world attention was turned to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Johnson has pulled back the cover of secrecy that shrouds this country with a story that is part adventure, part romance, and part political nightmare.  It is also fully engrossing.

The book’s protagonist is the orphan Jun Do, who believes himself to be the son of the head of the orphanage in which he lives. The Koreanization of the anonymous American “John Doe” is on example of the subtle humor that infuses what is otherwise a story that fluctuates between the horrifying and the absurd.

The first section of the book gives us the “biography” of Jun Do, at least what he believes or, sometimes, knows to be true. The main function of this section is to set up the main story in Part Two: The Confessions of Commander Ga. This part forms the action of the story (but don’t worry, plenty happens in Part One) – the ups and downs of Jun Do’s experience in a society where the only thing you can be sure of is that you can’t be sure of anything.

I want to avoid any spoilers here – one of the things I most enjoyed about this book was the somewhat bewildering, always fascinating, development of the story. I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of that pleasure. Leaving the plot aside, there are a number of other reasons why you should get your hands on a copy of this book ASAP:

  • Johnson spent six years researching North Korea and interviewing people who had defected from the DPRK before traveling there himself. It’s safe to say that he brings a great deal of knowledge about the culture and lives of the citizens of this shadowy country.
  • There is a fine balance between the realistic , the horrifying, and the preposterous, although it isn’t always clear which is which. Sometimes they overlap, as when Jun Do travels to the United States and observes, “This was a family, start to finish, without wars or famines or political prisons, without a stranger coming to town to drown your daughter.”
  • Jun Do is a hero you root for from beginning to end. That he projects an”everyman” quality in an environment that is, thankfully, so alien to American sensibilities is a tribute to Johnson’s skill in developing his characters.

This book has already been widely reviewed and cited as what will be one of the most important books of 2012. We all know how books that come out early in the year can be forgotten in the pre-Christmas rush of new titles. It will be a shame if that happens to The Orphan Master’s Son – it’s a book that deserves to be read and celebrated as original, captivating, and masterful. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Addendum: There’s a great interview with Adam Johnson about his experience  in North Korea and in writing this book on YouTube.

Grade: A+


  1. This is the first I hear of the book, and it sounds good. Thanks for the nice review, Jeannie. I love it that you give reasons why we should all read this book. I think I might! 🙂

  2. Joanna, it’s really different from anything I’ve read before. At times I had to stop to figure out what was going on, so it was a little challenging, but well worth the extra effort! Thanks for your comment.

  3. […] reviews of The Orphan Master’s Son: The Guardian ; The Hungry Reader ; PopMatters ; Too Many Books Too Little Time ; Farm Lane Books Share This: Recommend on Facebook Share with Stumblers Tweet about it Subscribe […]

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